Mirwaiz Umar Farooq pictured during an interview at his residence in Srinagar.—Reuters
Mirwaiz Umar Farooq pictured during an interview at his residence in Srinagar.—Reuters

SRINAGAR: More than five months after they were detained without charge, dozens of leaders from India-held Kashmir remain imprisoned as the Indian government seeks to marginalise them, according to sources and figures from a rights group.

Authorities in New Delhi see the removal of activists from communities in the disputed Kashmir Valley as a key aspect of their struggle against the armed groups and stone-pelting youths who have been fighting Indian rule, according to interviews with 10 people familiar with the situation.

The round-up of non-violent leaders, who support India-held Kashmir either joining Pakistan or becoming an independent state, is part of an unprecedented crackdown by the Indian government to neutralise a movement it believes fuels the armed struggle, the sources said.

That includes restrictions on the movement of the few political leaders who are out of jail, pressure on foreign diplomats not to meet them, and the recent banning of a number of unarmed organisations.

The sources who spoke on the matter included local leaders, diplomats, security officials, senior members of India’s ruling party and others familiar with the government’s thinking in several ministries in New Delhi.

“Action will be taken on whoever is connected or fuelling (militant groups) in whatever way,” one source familiar with the Indian government’s thinking said.

The exact number of those in Indian jails has yet to be determined.

It was reported on Feb 23 that more than a hundred people with links to anti-India groups were arrested in midnight raids, including the family members of prominent leaders, according to police officials.

Some of these people have since been released, but the numbers still in jail are likely unprecedented in the history of the disputed region, according to Khurram Parvez, coordinator of the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), a prominent human rights group.

A previously unpublished list from JKCCS shows that at least 33 senior figures, the vast majority of the movement’s leadership, remain in jail.

Ten of these people — including Yasin Malik, head of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, one of the most prominent Kashmiri groups — are being held in New Delhi.

The decision to move them to the capital from held Kashmir is a deliberate strategy aimed at preventing visits from supporters, according to two sources familiar with the government’s thinking.

Malik and most of the other leaders are being held under the Public Safety Act (PSA), a special law in Jammu and Kashmir state that allows for detention for up to two years without charge. The law was amended last year to allow detainees to be moved out of the disputed region.

A spokesman for India’s home ministry did not respond to questions on the number of people connected to the movement currently in prison, or when those held under PSA would be charged.

Malik’s group publicly renounced violence in the mid-1990s, but India says it retains ties with armed groups and banned it in March this year.

Hardened stance

Previous Indian governments treated non-violent Kashmiri leaders with caution, but occasionally reached out to them, most prominently in 2004 when then-deputy prime minister L.K. Advani, from the same Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as current Prime Minister Narendra Modi, held talks with Mirwaiz Umar Farooq.

Now, the government’s position is much more hardline.

Ram Madhav, a national general secretary of the BJP, who has a major role in setting policy on Kashmir, indicated there was currently little appetite in New Delhi for a renewed attempt at dialogue.

“They can’t decide about when to hold talks, (and when) not to hold talks,” he said in an interview.

Umar Farooq, chairman of the All Parties Hurriyat (Freedom) Conference, is currently one of the few leaders not in jail.

“We’re not allowed rallies, we’re not allowed to meet people we want, we can’t go outside the city,” he said in an interview at his home in Srinagar.

Including lower-level members, as well as relatives and associates, he estimated there could be as many as 250 people with links to anti-India groups currently imprisoned in Srinagar and in India.

Pressure on diplomats

India is also placing increasing pressure on foreign envoys not to meet those connected to the movement.

Two foreign diplomats based in New Delhi said that while the Indian government had no official prohibition on meeting leaders in Kashmir, they were closely monitored while visiting the Himalayan region and informally deterred from meeting them.

“Meeting ... leaders in jail or under house arrest is out of the question, but up until a few years ago we used to be able to meet with those that weren’t,” said one of the diplomats, who has visited the region but not met with any leaders.

“Now the government would freak out if I tried. It would risk creating a diplomatic incident between our countries.”

A spokesman for India’s foreign ministry said that guidelines for foreign diplomats visiting the region were set by the home ministry and included “not meeting person(s) who are indulged in anti-national activities”.

While the first half of the year was one of the deadliest in held Kashmir’s recent history, with more than 300 people dying in the conflict, there has been a noticeable decrease in low-level disorder since the round-up began in February, according to three of the sources, who included military and government officials.

Several Indian government officials claimed that unarmed groups were responsible for funding mobs of stone-pelting youths that often confront security forces trying to maintain order in the region.

But Umar Farooq denies that the unarmed groups are responsible for fuelling violence, and says that the government’s decision to marginalise Hurriyat and other groups has left a power vacuum.

“Hurriyat was a buffer. We would go out and engage with people,” he said. “But now these young boys are not listening to anyone.”

Published in Dawn, August 2nd, 2019

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